Centro’s New Chef Showcases Bold, Regional Mexican Dishes

Johnny Curiel comes from a proud family of chefs – his mom, dad, and sister are all executive chefs. He joked with me, however, his parents didn’t initially encourage being a chef because they knew firsthand about the long hours and immense hard work it requires. Nonetheless, it was in his blood and he couldn’t turn away from it.

Thus, he started young in kitchens. At age 14 he began washing dishes in his dad’s kitchen in Mexico. At age 18 he traveled across Mexico to learn the time honored food traditions from each state of his home country. When he turned 21 he joined Richard Sandoval, where his cooking brought him to D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Guadalajara, Oaxaca, and Aspen. Next, he joined Troy Guard where he worked at Guard + Grace, Los Chingones, and Mr. Tuna. He did a quick consulting stint at Bar Taco (new neighbor to Centro) and then he joined the Big Red F team as the Executive Chef of Centro on November 1st, 2017.

Centro (950 Pearl Street) has been a downtown staple since 2007. It’s been a longtime favorite happy hour location of mine – that amazing indoor/outdoor patio, margaritas, fresh salsa, and chips do the trick. I even wrote about them in 2011

Johnny’s new salsas: Salsa on the left is Macha (hails from Veracruz) where it’s actually very creamy and is peanut and chiopotle based. 

However, it’s gone through an evolution of its food and since I’ve lived here (2008), this is the best refresh and upgrade I’ve tasted at Centro with Johnny’s creations.

When asked how much of the menu he changed, he said, “99 percent.” He notes he kept the avocado salsa and that’s about it. You can also see the menu has expanded with far more options which include more seafood than before. Just like Johnny – ambitious and pushing the envelope.

When asked about how much creative freedom he was given, he smiled and said although he was open to guidance and feedback, they wanted to see what he could bring to the table (no pun intended) and gave him the reins. He dug right in. Because of his connections in Mexico he is able to bring in fresh herbs and otherwise difficult-to-find ingredients in regular shipments to the restaurant. His focus was infusing very special regional cuisine from every state of Mexico across the menu, up-leveling the cuisine, while being creative yet approachable.

Johnny shared that he wanted to be sure to include interesting sides on the menu because he wants to encourage sharing and family-style eating; just how he grew up in Mexico. The sides are hardly a throw-away – like their esquites dish (below): sweet corn salad, with limo aoili, dehydrated mole negro and cotija cheese or their pan-seared carrots which look like a carrot castle when they come out with greek yogurt (one of Johnny’s favorite ingredients) candied walnuts, and fresh fennel.

There are six tacos on the dinner menu, all of which are under $5. For lunch, there are tortas and bowls – which are not on the dinner menu. The two meal services vary quite a bit in the food they offer, to cater to different styles.

Johnny and his team cook everything from scratch and often many of the dishes are lengthy to prepare (to be done right) like his mole negro which takes 1.5 days to make, or the achiote pork collar is smoked for 8 hours, and one of their vegetarian dishes, the banana leaf tamal, takes two hours just to thoroughly clean the large leaves.

Tumbada (arroz la tumbada, a traditional Mexican dish prepared with rice and seafood – also known as the Yucatan’s ‘hangover cure’): Pan seared octopus, gulf shrimp, bay scallops, roasted garlic, guajillo peppers, lime, over a red pepper sofrito rice.

When asked about his favorite dish on this diverse and sophisticated menu, Johnny doesn’t hesitate when he shares it’s the slow roasted lamb taco made with chile guajillo, pan-seared tortilla and tomatillo-chile de arbol salsa. It’s a simple taco and he suggest squeezing the lime over the taco for the right taste. When asked why it’s his favorite, he shared it reminds him of his childhood and it’s exactly how his mother made it for him after church every Sunday.

Bottom Left Taco: Pork belly carnitas, black bean refritos, salsa oaxaca, avocado. Top Right Taco: Slow Roasted Lamb (the Johnny fave).

Finally, I was surprised to learn he has no pastry chef and he also makes all the desserts everyday. He insists he keeps it simple but upon trying his tres leches cake (below) it’s anything but straightforward in the best way possible. Instead of traditional milk, he uses mezcal eggnog, goats milk caramel, strawberry chile di ablo preserves, and whip cream integrated with greek yogurt atop a sugar cookie. I suggest pairing with a glass of Mezcal while you’re at it.

I encourage you to try this completely overhauled menu under the new chef direction.

Finally, Centro has many weekly specials that can’t be missed. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Monday all night happy hour – 3 to 6 p.m. and dishes are $6 or less, beer cans for $3, $5 margs.
  • Sunday is family night and kids eat free (plus at night, they feature different live bands).
  • Tamale Tuesdays (they get taco tuesday is played out) so try seasonal tamales for $2.
  • They also serve brunch Saturday and Sunday with weekend specials.